Saturday, June 27, 2009

Life in Mongolia: Perspective from 2 weeks in

Hi Everybody!

For those who have the time and interest, I’m finally getting around to writing a big update! I can't believe we've only been here 2 weeks. It feels like WAY longer, but not in a bad way. We've just experienced so much already! The brief summary is that Mark and I are both living with separate host families in Zuunmod, a decently sized city in Mongolia, about 45 minutes - 1 hour or so away from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the Tuv Province. We spend most of our time in class and studying, trying to figure out what our host families are trying to say to us, and trying to effectively communicate to them. For those who are still curious for more details, I’ll provide a sketch of what a typical weekday might look like for me here in Zuunmod, Mongolia.

I wake up around 7:00 or so and usually lay in my hard bed in my room until close to 8:00. After rolling out of bed I open up my curtains and I’m usually greeted by a big blue sky and sun shining in. Next, I pull some clothes out; this doesn’t take too long since I don't have much to choose from. I regret not bringing a few more nice things to wear because Mongolians really like dressing up or at least deem it important and us Americans are being constantly reminded to bathe and dress nice. Somehow Mongolians manage to look great even though they don’t wash their clothes, hair, or body as often as I am normally accustomed to. I have not mastered this yet. Anyway, after strategically choosing some clothes I slap on some deodorant, maybe put on some earrings and a little make-up, and figure out what to do with my frizzy hair. This depends on far or how close I am to having bathed/washed my hair. I have found that bathing about twice a week is normal here. From what I can tell, the norm here with my host family is a thorough washing once a week. This means heating up water and having my host mom pour it over my head over the bath tub while I wash it. We do have running water in our apt, but it's cold. Then I stand in the bathtub with a small bucket of water and wash the rest of me. The bathtub is mostly just there for me to splash around in - water doesn't actually run into, so I have to use whatever I have in my little bucket. I have not yet mastered the skills of conserving water like Mongolians do quite well.

After that quick hygiene routine I go to the bathroom (which contains a flushing toilet and toilet paper – this is not something you can assume you’ll find in bathrooms in Mongolia) then go in to have some breakfast that my host mom (Delgermaa or Degi for short) has prepared for me. This always consists of at least one cup of hot, salty milk tea, which accompanies every meal here. It’s a little different tasting, but I’ve gotten used to it. Along with the tea I might have a little breakfast sandwich with bread, fried egg (or microwaved egg), and ham. On a good day I might get to have some bread and jam. One day she bought me Cocoa Puffs! I think she was worried about me liking the food. It was a nice little treat, though she probably spent way too much on it.

During breakfast my host mom and I usually sit in an awkward silence. Occasionally we flip through our little phrase books and have a conversation one word at a time. I’m not sure if it really qualifies as a conversation though. My host dad (Purevdorj*) is sometimes around when I get up, but is often at work. My host brothers (Bilguun - Bebi for short – age 17 and Dolgoon – age 6) are usually both sleeping still. I’m not sure when Bebi gets up, but on the weekends, like a typical American 17-year-old, he often sleeps in until 11 or 12. Oh and because I’m around and have taken the only bedroom, all four of them sleep in the living room/bedroom together. It makes me feel weird taking up so much space, but it’s a Peace Corps requirement that we have our own room. And fortunately, they are getting paid a pretty good amount of money for hosting me. It's still weird for me though. But for the most part, Mongolians don't have the same ideas about personal space like Americans do. i.e. kids don't get to have their own room, they don't feel a lot of need for privacy or alone time, and they have a much, much smaller personal bubble.

*Side note: I have a great story about the first time I met Purevdorj – someday, ask me about it. It’s at least in my top 5 most awkward cross-cultural experiences.

After breakfast I leave my big Soviet built concrete apartment building to make the short walk to class. On the way to class I walk past two little stores (“delgoors”), like mini-mini-markets, a kindergarten (more like what we’d call a daycare), a sports center, a handful of scraggly stray dogs (that the Peace Corps has made me terrified of because of the threat of getting bit and getting rabies), and a bunch of Mongolians on their way to work. My host mom is one of these people, as she walks to work at the town Hospital. I can't quite figure out what she does. She's not a nurse, but she must do somethign that involved adminstering shots because random people show up to our apt in the evenings and she gives them shots. Not sure what that's about yet.

I get to school and hang out with the other students (there are 15 of us total), then we roll in to start language class at 9:00. Class goes from 9:00 to 1:00 with a couple of breaks. There is a LOT to learn. At times it is overwhelming; at other times it’s really fun and interesting. There are only 4 of us in my class though, so we get a lot of attention from our teacher and can ask lots of questions, which is nice. It’s also kind of nice that we all started out at the same level, so we’re all (in my class) learning at a similar pace. Everybody in my class also speaks Spanish and it’s funny how often our minds revert to that. I’ll be talking to the teacher or my family and I realize I don’t remember the word for “and” so I say “y” or I say “o” for or, thinking it should be the same. Or just tons of other Spanish phrases come to mind. Unfortunately, Mongolian is not like Spanissh (or English) – not at ALL.

After language class I walk back to have lunch at home with my host family. As with every meal, my host mom prepares it for me. Lunch is, again, milk tea, and usually some sort of noodle dish. The most common dish is tsuiven (pronounced soy-ven) which is basically really greasy noodles and meat, in my home, always mutton. It’s pretty good but I can see how it will get old after a while. I actually think the mutton tastes fine; it’s like beef, just a little different. It’s the chunks of fat mixed in that I don’t enjoy (but most Mongolians consider a yummy little part of the meal).

After my nice little lunch break I walk back to school for a CYD class or a cross-cultural class, depending on the day. Class gets out sometime between 5 and 6 and we (all students) usually mill around after class to talk. I might go to the Post Office (“kholboo”) to use the internet. If not, I usually head home for dinner.

Dinner usually involves some sort of noodle or rice and meat. There’s usually a lot of grease, oil, and or fat involved. There’s an unfortunately small amount of fruit and vegetables in my diet. I do occasionally get potatoes and sometimes carrots, and I’ve had a little cucumber and pickles. One of the more common dinner entrees is buuz (pronounced like “boats”) which are like little dumplings or potstickers. My host mom makes the dough, rolls it out into little circles, then we put meat in them and pinch them closed. Mongolians are experts at making buuz. My host mom is nice enough to let me help, but I’m not so good at it. You can definitely see the “Kara buuz” (as she calls them) and the regular buuz. They’re pretty yummy! I just have a hard time when I get dished a plate of at least 10 of them. I’m starting to get more comfortable with not finishing everything they feed me. It’s just too much. Oh, and don’t forget, more milk tea with dinner.

So far, over dinner not a lot of conversation takes place between us. I’ve started trying to practice things we learn in class but they are things like “I’m from America,” which sound stupid saying to them now that I’ve lived here and a while and it’s pretty clear where I’m from. We mostly flip through our phrase books and dictionaries and try to mime things. It can be fun at times, but also pretty frustrating. Bebi (older brother, 17) speaks decent English, so if he’s around that helps. Occasionally I know they are all talking about me and probably discuss some cultural norm I broke, at least that’s what I’m guessing. I just know they talk, look at me, giggle, keep talking. It’s pretty sweet.

After dinner I usually just study. There’s homework, trying to memorize words, figure out grammar, look over tomorrow’s language lesson, and then any CYD homework I have on top of that. It keeps me pretty busy, but I’m glad to stay busy. As for the family, Bebi (17-year-old) is usually gone out hanging with friends or something (i.e. basketball and computer games), the mom switches between cleaning, preparing/cleaning up dinner, and watching TV. Watching TV is a pretty major past-time. On a side note, I think I heard about Michael Jackson's death surprisingly quickly. I'm in Mongolia, but not cut off from the rest of the world entirely. Although that's pretty much the only news I've picked up.

Anyway, that's basically a little version of my life here! I left out some more of the extreme awkwardness, but that's just a party of daily life here. More stories to come soon!

Thanks for keeping Mark and I in your thoughts and prayers. I'll bug him to post something soon!



Mike Fiechtner said...

Mandy and I have been praying for you! Things here in Seattle are good. Miss you guys!

Jen said...

Kara I saw your blog on facebook. Wow I can't believe you'll be in Mongolia for two years. What a cool experience!! Your blog is so awesome! I had no idea what Mongolia was like, but it seems like you are adjusting well. I'm excited to read more in the months to come :) Also, I have a blog too - -- Take care! Jen (Killpack).